Tokyo Drifter

Straight and narrow: Tetsuya Watari (left) and Chieko Matusbara in Tokyo Drifter

Gangster drama, not rated, 89 minutes, in Japanese with subtitles, Violet Crown, 3 chiles

Seijun Suzuki starts this Yakuza crime confection in gritty, classic film noir black and white. And then, like The Wizard of Oz, it blooms into a riot of color.

Suzuki was the Roger Corman of the Japanese system, a B-movie director who achieved an offbeat cult stature by pushing beyond the confines of his mandate and turning out bizarrely exhilarating takes on the pedestrian material he was dealt.

By 1966, his bosses at the Nikkatsu studio were beginning to grow wary of their oddball maverick. They sent Suzuki Tokyo Drifter, a formulaic script about a Yakuza henchman trying to go straight, but drawn inexorably back into the world of crime. And they put him on a tight budget, hoping to squeeze him onto the straight and narrow.

It didn’t work. Suzuki, with cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine and art director Takeo Kimura, painted the film in garish hues and candy pastels, and created shots of startling beauty interspersed with the more tawdry standard gangster drama interiors. The dialogue is thick with risible clichés, and a lot of the acting is B-movie maintenance level. Still, the film ricochets from scene to scene, often with little comprehensible sense of connection, but with an infectious energy.

The hero is Tetsuya Hondo, known as “Phoenix Tetsu” for his ability to cheat death and rise again. He’s played by Tetsuya Wahari, a smooth-faced young man whose main assignment is to look cool, smoke cigarettes, try to channel his inner Humphrey Bogart, and take a licking and keep on ticking. He's also made to warble a song about being a drifter. He sings it often, and his girlfriend, lounge singer Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) does the same with her signature number about misery dripping from her fingertips.

The banality of dialogue and incomprehensibility of plot can wear a little thin, but Suzuki keeps things so visually lively that it’s hard to hold the movie’s deficiencies against it. You find yourself surrendering to the next flight of fancy without really caring that you have no idea how we got there. One of the movie’s classic set pieces is an extended barroom brawl involving American sailors, and it’s so infused with the spirit of an MGM musical that you half expect to see Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire fighting back to back, and turning to exchange a wink.